(Susan Hunt) - Churches frequently ask me for ideas on how to reach out into their local community. I am becoming more and more convinced that one of the best ways our churches can reach out is through the local schools. Many public schools are seeing lower test scores, inadequate staffing, decreased funding, and overall decline. Parents work two and three jobs and cannot spend the time at the school during the day like my own mother did.
The quality of education for all children affects us all, and should concern us all. While it is an urban myth that US prison planners use third-grade reading scores to predict future inmate populations, studies do show that a student who cannot read on grade level by 3rd grade is much less likely to graduate by age 19. In turn, too many high school dropouts do end up in jail or juvenile detention.* **
Isn’t being salt and light to the world part of our calling as a Church? What better place to start than in the schools! It is a great way to show a loving presence to children – to show that someone cares for them and they are not forgotten.
I saw firsthand the positive effect a church can have in a local school when I was working in Oklahoma a few years ago. My church went into partnership with a lower-income public elementary school. Volunteers were mentors and tutors, and classroom and test monitors. Other volunteers helped improve the school building itself with painting, light construction/repair work, landscaping, and more. Church members donated school supplies and equipment and some uniforms. Our volunteers went before the school board to request they address a leaky roof that had been neglected and was creating safety concerns. They found a small grant to purchase a special science experiment. Volunteers provided homeroom parties with treats on special holidays. We invited the teachers to attend a worship service at our church early in the school year in which they were prayed for. The list can go on and on.
Our volunteers didn’t hold religious services, or compel any of the children to attend church. The church was careful not to violate any of the issues related to the separation of church and state. But the volunteers were not shy about who they represented. It was clear they shared their love with the students and faculty and loved unconditionally just as Jesus did.
The volunteers were fondly known as the “church people” by the students. When the volunteers would arrive to help tutor, monitor a test, or bring cupcakes for a homeroom party, the children were always excited and happy to see the smiling and loving faces of these special “church people”. What a positive image they had of our volunteers, who were quick with a hug and a smile or an encouraging word, which in turn gave them such a positive image of Jesus Christ and the Church.
And the prayers – oh, the prayers. Each child and adult in that school was prayed for by name every day by a member of our church. The die-cut figurine with the first name of the child I was praying for still remains in my Bible, even these many years later. This may have been the most impactful part of the ministry.
In the three years our church partnered with that school, it became one of the most improved schools in the state. It showed an incredible turnaround with test scores, attendance, and many other markers. In fact, because of the great improvement in the school, it received special recognition and each teacher was awarded a substantial gift card from the state to purchase supplies for their classroom.
So instead of being frustrated at how so many of our public schools are struggling, let’s do something about it together and share the love of Jesus at the same time. Find a way for your church to partner with a local school. Ask your neighboring churches to join you. Your methods may not be all the same as my church in Oklahoma used; needs and opportunities to serve vary from school to school. A good place to start when developing new partnerships is for the church to simply ask, “How can we serve you?” I’m sure the school’s number one need is prayer!